April 21 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fourth Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Theme: The safe option is something to do with "The Good Shepherd". A more thoughtful pick might be "The Work Goes On", or "The Father, the Son and the Servant": something to encapsulate the basic idea of the work of the Father becoming the work of the Son, which in turn has become the work of the Son's disciples. [To be theologically correct, I suppose, I should say that the work of the Father is now carried on by the Spirit through the Son's disciples, but the point is clear enough.]
Introduction. We have now moved beyond the resurrection appearances themselves, and the emphasis is on the continuity of the divine action through the believers (collectively, the infant church). Just as the gospels often show Jesus "re-enacting" specific actions of God, so now we see the apostles performing many of the same "miraculous signs" in Jesus' name. We have one of the clearest examples of that in our reading from the Book of Acts, as Peter restores Tabitha to life. Clearly the account follows quite closely the account of Jesus restoring Jairus' daughter to life in Mark 5:35-43: see also the restoration of the widow of Nain's son in Luke 7:11-17, and, of course, the "calling out" of Lazarus. The deep underlying theology of all this is found, in very brief form, in our gospel reading, as Jesus refers to "the works I do in my Father's name"; and goes on to infuriate his questioners by asserting "The Father and I are one." And all this is lit up, as it were, by the glorious vision of the future that lies ahead and calls us ever onward, set out in our reading from the Book of Revelation.
Background. One of the perennial dangers we face in preaching or hearing preached short extracts from the Scriptures week by week is that of losing sight of the fact that we are concerned with only one story – the story of God as revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Our tendency is to deal in the separate bits – last week, the reinstatement of Peter and the conversion of Saul, this week the miraculous restoration of Tabitha, and so on. Here are a couple of useless bits of information stored away in my mind that may illustrate the point I am trying to make this week.
The first concerns rope. Centuries ago when I was studying criminal law, my lecturer brought into the room a length of thick rope, of the kind used to tie up large ships when they dock. He asked us to pass it round among ourselves, and each of us was to try to unravel a bit, a task that proved very difficult. That was his introduction to the practical side of the law relating to circumstantial evidence. If the crown relies (as it often has to) on circumstantial evidence, the task of the defence counsel is to try to unpick it, and show how weak the individual strands are. If the rope holds firm, the jury may conclude that it is strong enough to hang the accused!
A more pleasant example comes from a school trip to Hampton Court where, among the many treasures, we were shown a huge tapestry. With a great (and no doubt well-practised) flourish, our guide produced a single thread of wool and said, "And this is what this whole magnificent tapestry is made of, hundreds of thousands of individual threads." In this Easter Season we gaze upon one part of the great tapestry that God is weaving, and we need constantly to hold in our minds that each individual thread is part of the whole wonderful creative work.
So we may return briefly to Easter evening and that first dramatic appearance of the Risen Christ among his disciples. Because of Luke' more dramatic schema, incorporated in our liturgical year, we tend to think of the coming of the Holy Spirit as "delayed" until the Feast of Pentecost. But look again at this record in John of that encounter between the Risen Christ and his disciples and we find two elements of supreme importance for our understanding of today's readings, and of the whole story: Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'
There is so much in these brief words! Life came into human form when God breathed into the material body of Adam. To pinch Paul's language for a moment, as with the old creation so with the new. Then we remember that Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism; and only then did he begin his ministry to others – only then did he start fulfilling the mission for which the Father had sent him, to do the Father's work. And here we find that same combination for Peter and the others: receipt of the Holy Spirit and of a mission to others.
Which gets us to our story from the Book of Acts. As mentioned above there are striking similarities between the details of this story and those in Mark's account of the restoration of Jairus' daughter (which, we are told, Peter witnessed). The weeping mourners; the exclusion of the crowds; the command to the corpse to "get up"; the lending of a hand to get up; and so on. God gives life to Adam; Jesus gives life to the little girl; Peter gives life to the much-loved woman. In each case, the same divine power, the power that raised Jesus himself from death to life, is in play here.
And, of course, we can see where all this is heading, can't we; especially if, in accordance with long-established tradition, we renewed our baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil service recently. Have we not received the same life-giving power we call the Holy Spirit? Have we not been sent on the same mission as Peter and all other disciples of Christ? And did not Jesus himself say: Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father?
Back to my law lecturer and a slightly different use of his image of the rope. Where for us does the rope of faith unravel? Do we believe that God is the source of all life? If so, do we believe that Christ had the power to restore people from death to life? If so, do we believe that Peter had this power, as shown in today's story? And if so, do we believe that we, the baptised and commissioned followers of Jesus Christ, have that same power today?
Acts. There are a number of other details in this story of interest. First of all, Tabitha gets a bit of a write-up; she is not some nameless person in a story about someone else. We are even told her Greek name, Dorcas, which suggests that she was well-known, at least in the Christian community. She was known for her good works and acts of charity. The lovely little detail in verse 39 attests to her skills (and generosity) as a dressmaker. Is there a hint here that she deserved better than illness and premature death – that perhaps her death was particularly unsettling to the faith community? Then we get some practical details about the proper preparation of the body for burial (hint of Jesus' burial?) "Disciples" are present, but they feel the need to send for Peter. Nothing is said about the reason for that: their request is for his urgent presence, but does not indicate what they expect of him when he does arrive. It's tempting to assume that he is thought to have greater "healing" powers than those who send for him; but it may simply be that they need his help in responding pastorally to the people upset by Tabitha's death. Possibly his immediate response is intentionally contrasted with Jesus' famous delayed response to a similar request when Lazarus was dying. The story ends with an almost theatrical revelation of the restored Tabitha to the audience of saints and widows; and then a practical piece of information of no obvious importance: Peter stayed on for a while in Joppa at the house of Simon the tanner. This seems to be a rather uncharacteristically clumsy segue by Luke to the next story about Cornelius the centurion.
Taking It Personally.
· What do you make of this story? Do you find it any harder to believe than those involving Jesus himself? Do the details in verse 39 have a ring of truth about them?
· If you were asked to pray for the restoration of someone who has just died, what would you do or say?
· What is the most life-giving thing you have said or done in the past week? What is the most life-giving thing anyone else has said or done to you or for you in the past week?
Revelation. I have never quite warmed to the expression "the Church Militant", and I don't usually find "the Church Triumphant" much easier. But it is difficult to think of any other expression that might do justice to today's portion of the extraordinary vision that St John the Divine experienced. Perhaps it loses some of its wonder for us, with the benefit of 2,000 years of hindsight, as we look at a Church of around 2 billion members in so many countries, complete with an Argentine Pope! But at the end of the first century, when John was in captivity on the Isle of Patmos, with the number of Christians in the low thousands, and facing persecution and martyrdom regularly, such a vision must have been astounding. And wonderfully reassuring and comforting! Even martyrdom cannot take away what God has in store for believers. The white robes are THE symbol for those who have been baptised; and here they are, alongside the heavenly creatures, encircling the very throne of God and the Lamb. Of course, pedants might quibble at the Lamb being also the shepherd of the flock, but the logic of the material world gives way to a different logic is the spiritual realm (as it does in our nightly dreams).
Taking It Personally.
· Here's a stretch – trying using the prayer of imagination with this passage! (I haven't yet tried it myself so I can't say whether it will work or not, but I intend to give it a go.) Place yourself in the story with the other white-robed ones. Listen to the singing and chanting – perhaps even join in (you might want to ensure that you are alone in the house first).
· Now think about your usual experience of worship in your local church. What can you do to bring the worship of heaven down to earth in that place?
· Continue the exercise of placing those things that are presently troubling you in the context of this passage, and be reassured. Temporal problems come to an end – eventually.
John. And now we crash back to earth with a particularly unlovely passage from this gospel. It is winter. Jesus is in the temple. [This raises an immediate problem for us, because the other gospels seem to suggest that Jesus only comes to the temple once, and that in Holy Week. John has a different view on that.] Jesus is once again met by his critics who demand a straight answer: is he or is he not the Messiah? As ever, Jesus does not give a yes/no answer. In fact, his answer is strangely similar to the one he gave to the imprisoned John when emissaries came to Jesus asking virtually the same question. Jesus draws attention to his "works", which, he suggests, supplies the answer to their question. But their significance is hidden from those who do not belong to Jesus' flock. The reference back to this pastoral image (so central to the first part of this chapter) strikes me as rather clumsy, as does the sudden assertion that "The Father and I are one." It may be that some less than subtle editing has gone on with the text here, to plant the seed that will grow into fullness in chapters 16 and 17.
Taking It Personally.
· The evidence of Jesus' true identity (Messiah/Son of God/ God Incarnate) is the works he performs in his Father's name. The evidence that Peter has the power of the Holy Spirit is the works he performs in Jesus' name? What is the evidence that you have received the Holy Spirit?
· Shape your prayers accordingly.